NARA proposes mail discards

National Archives and Records Administration officials want to revise the agency's short-term e-mail policy, permitting federal officials to discard routine e-mail messages after a certain amount of time without keeping hard copies.

A proposed rule published today in the Federal Register would allow agencies "to dispose of short-term temporary electronic mail [e-mail] records (e.g., those with a retention period of 90, 120 or 180 days), without requiring the creation of a separate paper or electronic recordkeeping copy."

The short-term records can reside on a live e-mail system if users and the system's automatic deletion rules do not delete the messages before the NARA-approved retention period expires.

The rule applies to holiday e-mail messages, charity appeals, task lists and routine requests for information.

Records management experts say this is an improvement over past policy.

"I always regret when they wander down the path of trying to codify the ephemeral. ... It's like calling junk mail 'records,' " said Jeanne Young, a consultant and retired archivist and records manager.

Young's one objection is specifying the amount of time the correspondence must be kept.

"If they weren't worrying about this kind of minutiae, they'd have more time and energy and other financial resources to spend on really important records, which is their primary mission," Young added.

The proposed change seems reasonable, said Patrice McDermott, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office of Government Relations. But officials must make sure the retention schedule is the proper one, she said.

"And that's where the devil's in the details," said McDermott, who praised NARA officials for listing examples of short-term records and disposition schedules.

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